Organizing Faculty in the For-Profit Sector

Yesterday, my co-blogger Ezra Deutsch-Feldman wrote about apparent abuses of management power at Sullivan University, a for-profit institution in Kentucky. Today, guest blogger Joe Berry looks for-profits from the other side, from the point of view of faculty. Joe is a labor educator and a contingent faculty activist; he has been active in both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association at local, state and national levels and is also a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession. Here is what he has to say:

Back in the 1990’s the assistant director of the higher education department of the American Federation of Teachers, Perry Robinson, delivered a short paper at an international education union conference. The paper is probably remembered by him, me, and three other folks. Nevertheless, I still think about it and I might say it changed my life. I’ll spare you the details, but Robinson, based on research and some very educated projections, estimated at that time that the for-profit segment of higher education probably employed as many faculty in the US as the entire traditional public and private non-profit sectors combined. He put the total at nearly a million, as I recall. (After four moves since that date, I can no longer find the paper and Robinson has long since retired. If one of the other three people who still remember the piece have a copy and would send it to me, I would appreciate it.)

There is no evidence that the number of faculty in for-profits has declined. In fact, with the layoffs and cuts in the traditional sectors, despite rising demand for higher ed by students, the for-profits are easily the fastest growing institutions in US post secondary education. Remember, this includes all the “accredited” degree-granting institutions (online and in-person), trade schools, private ESL academies, corporate “universities” like the former Motorola U, and thousands of other businesses where adult students call other adults “teacher” or “professor”. If you doubt that this is a growth sector, Wall Street does not, with nearly all of its “publicly” owned (meaning traded) stock shares being recommend as “do buy” by the smart guys. They include Apollo Group (U of Phoenix), Kaplan, Corinthian, Walden, Argosy, and a host of other names.

And who are these teachers? Well, I was one of them, at DeVry University (stock ticker symbol “DV”), based in Chicago, but stretching all over North America and now beyond. In the adjunct workroom there (and we were over 3/4 of the faculty; even the full-timers had no tenure, though they had some benefits) I saw the same faces I saw at my other (newly unionized) jobs at Roosevelt U (private non-profit) and the Chicago City Colleges (public community colleges). We even talked a bit, in hushed voices, about the comparisons and the need for faculty unions at for-profits. Right then, I decided that when I could I would try to get someone to start a campaign to help these folks organize.

Why? Because, their (our) numbers are too big to ignore. Because the for-profits are already mentoring the traditional institutions’ managements as to how to make money in hard times. Because only the faculty, organized, can stop them from turning 90% of higher ed into corporate dictated narrow job training. Because no one should have to work under the insecure, un-benefited, non-living wage conditions that most post-secondary teachers face. Because the mostly working class students in these places deserve a faculty that can afford the risk to teach the truth as they see it (Remember, there is no academic freedom or free speech in a corporation). Because the for-profits are politically vulnerable with all the bad press recently and that can give people working there courage to fight. And especially because we CAN!

Some people are already trying. There have been efforts to organize at Kaplan and in certain cities, like Chicago (unsuccessful) and Vancouver (successful). But these faculty need help and the US national academic unions, all of them, (AFT, NEA, and the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress) should not ignore this issue as they largely ignored, at least strategically, the rise of contingency among the faculty for decades. Now is the time for a national strategy to do organize faculty at for-profits, before the private-sector labor movement declines any further. Those of us in public-sector higher ed have to reach out our hands or ultimately we will all face the conditions faced by our colleagues in the for-profits today.

So, this is my project, since I am personally laid off (from a contingent faculty job) at present and can’t think of a single thing better to do except maybe riding my bicycle and hugging my grandchildren, which I also do a lot and don’t plan to quit. I laid out some ideas (basically a metropolitan, worker-center type strategy) for organizing these and other contingent faculty in my book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower (shameless self-promotion alert!). I am even more convinced now that, basically, I got it right, along with the many others in the movement who have taught me over the years. I hope to start a pilot in the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and to interest folks in other places to do likewise. I also hope to get the national unions to open a discussion on organizing in this sector. If you agree or want to talk more, I am at

Readers, Have you ever worked for a for-profit university? How do the working conditions differ from those in the nonprofit and public sectors? What obstacles & possibilities of organizing do you see there?

One thought on “Organizing Faculty in the For-Profit Sector

  1. Many years ago I worked for a private post-secondary school. They are the bane of American education. I filed a complaint with the California agency that regulates them after they changed a failing grade to a passing grade for two of my students. Unfortunately, the agency had no teeth and has since folded. But the saddest case was an elderly Spanish speaking seamstress who was convinced that her lot would improve if she got an education there. She was sent to me only after she failed many courses and the administrators thought I could teach her how to type. She was not able to learn the material but they kept finding ways to turn the screws to get her money.

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